Women’s Feature – Tricia Saunders, first U.S. World Champion

By Gary Abbott USA Wrestling | March 01, 2015, 10:33 p.m. (ET)
TRICIA SAUNDERS
First U.S. Women’s World Champion; Most World titles by a U.S. woman


A youth wrestler in Ann Arbor, Mich., Tricia McNaughton was on a club that was coached by Olympian Mark Johnson and included future Olympic medalist and World champion Zeke Jones. She was very talented, beating boys on a regular basis and competing in major youth events.

Alas, wrestling opportunities didn’t really exist for girls in her era, and McNaughton turned her efforts to gymnastics and other activities in high school and college. However, when the international wrestling federation started hosting World Championships for women, word got back to Tricia. She moved down to the Phoenix area, where her brother Andy McNaughton was competing for Arizona State. She became a member of the Sunkist Kids, led by its founder, Art Martori, one of the early leaders in developing women’s wrestling, and the rest was history.

Ultimately, she married an ASU wrestler, Townsend Saunders, who went on to be a great star in his own right, a 1996 Olympic silver medalist. They became wrestling’s No. 1 married couple, both pursuing the highest goals possible in our sport at the same time.

Tricia placed fifth and sixth in her first two World Championships, and came into the 1992 Worlds in Villerbanne, France at the top of her game, competing at 47 kg/103.5 lbs. She opened with a pair of pins, putting away Aracely Jimenez of Venezuela in 26 seconds and Britt Solstad of Norway in 2:55. Her third bout was against two-time World champion Martine Poupon of France, who Saunders beat 3-0. In the gold-medal finals, Saunders drew Yoshiko Endo, a 1991 World silver medalist. Saunders got her offense going to win 7-3, and become the first American woman to win a World wrestling title.

“Tricia did everything she trained for and what she expected to do. She is a real hero. She trained hard, made sacrifices and got what she went for. The weight was the best one there. Tricia is in great physical condition, strong, clean technically and was well prepared,” said U.S. World Team coach Rusty Davidson.

Saunders was by no means done. When her career was finished, she had won the most World titles of any U.S. woman, with four gold medals, also winning in 1996, 1998 and 1999. Add in her 1993 World silver medal, and she was one of the greatest American wrestlers ever, regardless of gender. A truly amazing fact is that Saunders never lost a match against another American in a decade of competition. Add to that, she was a vocal leader for the development of women’s wrestling at all levels, fighting hard to expand opportunity for future generations and serving in leadership positions in the sport.

She never had the chance to wrestle in the Olympic Games, but she was one of the coaches of the first U.S. Women’s Olympic Wrestling Team ever, at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Greece, coaching alongside her husband Townsend Saunders and National Coach Terry Steiner. She has been inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and the UWW International Hall of Fame, well deserved honors, while remaining active in wrestling on the USA Wrestling Board of Directors and a number of key committees. Truly a pioneer for women’s wrestling, Saunders was also America’s most successful champion.

Photo in this story: Saunders receives her gold medal at the 2009 World Championships, her fourth career World gold medal.
Photo on TheMat.com home page: This image of Tricia Saunders turning an opponent appeared on the cover of USA Wrestler.

This week, TheMat.com will feature a top women’s wrestler who has reached a major milestone for USA Wrestling.